Paul Rivet (May 7, 1876 – March 21, 1958) was a French ethnologist and physical anthropologist, famous for his studies of South American peoples. In addition to his fieldwork and theoretical contributions, he founded the Musée de l'Homme and the Anthropological Institute and Museum in Colombia. He was also active in the anti-fascist movement.
Rivet proposed a theory according to which South America was populated by settlers from Australia and Melanesia. He argued that Asia was the cradle of the American man, but that the first inhabitants of South America did not come from the north, but through Australia and Melanesia, some 6,000 years ago. He was able to present linguistic and anthropological evidence to support his thesis. Others, including Thor Heyerdahl who constructed and sailed the Kon-Tiki raft from Peru to Polynesia, have suggested that migration occurred from South America to Australia, and other evidence suggests that Polynesia was settled directly by Asians. Regardless of the actual paths of the migrations that settled all the lands of the earth, Rivet was clear that all humanity was connected, originally one family. His work has helped to break down the barriers that have arisen and inspired the idea that all people can be united.
Paul Rivet was born on May 7, 1876 in Wasigny, Ardennes in France. His interest was in becoming a physician, and so after graduating high school he attended the Military School of Medicine in Lyon. He graduated with his doctorate degree in 1897.
Rivet took part in the Second French Geodesic Mission to Ecuador in 1901, in the role of a physician. It was there that he became interested in physical anthropology, and decided to dedicate his life to the field. He remained for six years in South America, studying the inhabitants of Andean valleys. Upon his return to Paris, he was named secretary of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, directed by René Vernaus. Rivet’s notes from his South American journey were published along with Vernaus' between 1921 and 1922, under the title Ancient Ethnography of Ecuador.
In 1926, Paul Rivet, together with Marcel Mauss, Emile Durkheim, and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, established the Institut d'Ethnologie in Paris, where he taught ethnology. The idea behind the Institute was to bring together the three major social sciences—philosophy, anthropology, and sociology. In 1928, Rivet succeeded René Vernaus as director of the National Museum of Natural History.
Beside his work in anthropology, Rivet was much interested in politics. During World War I he was active in the French defense ministry, and after the war he became a member of the anti-fascist movement. In 1934, along with Alan and Paul Lagevin, Rivet founded the Comite de Vigilance des Intellectuels Antifascistes. In 1935, he became the Conseiller Municipal of Paris.
In 1937, Rivet founded the Musee de l’Homme (the Museum of Man) in Paris. He again started to spend more and more time in South America, writing on local languages. That, however, did not prevent him from participating in anti-fascist activities, and from 1940 he organized the anti-fascist resistance network at the Musee de l’Homme.
In 1942, Paul Rivet went to Colombia where he founded the Anthropological Institute and Museum. His most famous work, Les Origines de l’Homme American, was published in 1943. After the return to Paris in 1945, he continued teaching while carrying on his research.
Rivet was married to Mercedes Andrade, a native of Ecuador, with whom he lived until his death. He died on March 21, 1958 in Paris, France.
Rivet suggested the theory that the Indigenous peoples of the Americass in South America came from Australia and Melanesia. He published his Les Origines de l'Homme Américain (The Origins of the American Man) in 1943, in which he presented linguistic and anthropological arguments in an attempt to prove his thesis. He saw evidence in both the biophysical characteristics, such as the color of the skin and stature, and cultural and linguistic similarities among the indigenous peoples in Australia, Melanesia, and South America.
Rivet’s theory repudiated the theory of Aleš Hrdlička, which proposed that Native American people came exclusively from Asia, across what is now called the Bering Strait. In contrast, Rivet proposed the alternative route for South American natives. He stated that people came to South America from Polynesia and Melanesia, via Australia. His theory is known as the “poliracial” thesis, which suggests that the dark skinned people of New Guinea, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, and Fiji, as well as the inhabitants of the Polynesian archipelagos—Maoris, crossed the Pacific Ocean in their canoes, and arrived in Central and South America, from where their descendants spread all across the Americas.
The evidence Rivet presented was:
- Similarities in bones and other sanguineous features of both Melanesians and South American Indians.
- Similar customs and rituals between Amazonian and Melanesian tribes; for example, the hunting of heads as trophies.
- Similarities in language; for example between the Maori and Quechua language of Peru.
Beside his work on the origins of man in America, Rivet also studied the local languages of South American Indians. His linguistic research introduced several new perspectives on the Aymara and Quechua languages. His classification of Indian languages, published in 1924, superseded all previous classifications, and was continuously used for several decades as the resource on local culture.
Paul Rivet was a well known French anthropologists, whose work helped establish French ethnology between the two world wars. He is mostly remembered today for the museums he founded, both in France and in South America, and for his theory of Australian migrations.
In 1947, Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl organized an expedition to demonstrate that the trip across the Pacific Ocean was possible. Heyerdahl however, like his predecessors such as Jens Jacob Asmussen Worsaae, believed that the migrations occurred in the opposite direction—that people from South America traveled to the Polynesian Islands. Heyerdahl constructed a raft named Kon-Tiki and sailed from Callao, Peru in the direction of the Australian Continent. It took three months to complete the journey, proving that migrations between the two continents were possible.
Scientists still debate whether people who lived in the Americas before hunter-gatherer migrants from Siberia crossed the Bering Strait, actually came from Oceania. Evidence supporting this theory includes cave paintings in Serra da Capivara National Park in Brazil, limestone caves of Lagoa Santa region in central Brazil, the Fuegians of Tierra del Fuego, and the Kennewick Man, whose remains were found in Washington State. These all suggest that early humans traveled across the Pacific Ocean from Asia and Oceania to America during a time when inland routes were blocked by ice. Among the scientists who have supported the theory of the Australian migrations are Mendes Correa and George Montandon.
- Rivet, Paul. 1923. L'orfèvrerie du Chiriquí et de Colombie. Paris: Société des Américanistes de Paris.
- Rivet, Paul. 1923. L'orfèvrerie précolombienne des Antilles, des Guyanes, et du Vénézuéla, dans ses rapports avec l'orfèvrerie et la métallurgie des autres régions américaines. Paris: Au siège de la société des Américanistes de Paris.
- Rivet, Paul. 1943. Los origenes del hombre Americano. México: Cuadernos amerícanos.
- Rivet, Paul. 1960. Maya cities: Ancient cities and temples. London: Elek Books.
- Freund, Gisèle, & Paul Rivet. 1954. Mexique précolombien. Neuchâtel: Éditions Ides et calendes.
- Alarcón, Arturo G. 2006. Paul Rivet Y La Teoría Oceánica. Retrieved on July 3, 2007,
- D’Harcourt, Raoul. 1958. Paul Rivet. American Anthropologist. 60(4), 1180-1181
- Rodriguez, Antonio O. 2003. Paul Rivet: Estudioso Del Hombre Americano. Panamericana Editorial. ISBN 9583005266
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